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Brazil's Queen of Rock, Rita Lee, has died

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Brazil's queen of rock, Rita Lee, passed away this week. She was 75 years old. NPR's Isabella Gomez Sarmiento has this appreciation.

ISABELLA GOMEZ SARMIENTO, BYLINE: Rita Lee once told a Brazilian newspaper that her band, Os Mutantes, quote, "came from another planet to take over the world." That's kind of what it sounded like.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAT MACUMBA")

OS MUTANTES: (Singing in non-English language).

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Rita Lee Jones de Carvalho was born in Sao Paulo. Her mother's side came from Italy. Her father descended from American confederates who fled the South after the Civil War. But Lee became known for progressive politics as much as for music. She played the piano from an early age and co-founded Os Mutantes as a teenager in the 1960s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PANIS ET CIRCENSES")

OS MUTANTES: (Singing in non-English language).

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Combining rock, psychedelia and pan-Latin rhythms, the tripped-out trio formed part of the Tropicalia movement. It was a countercultural scene that flourished during Brazil's military dictatorship. Lee told The New York Times in 2001 that artists had to, quote, "be creative, but evasive, to avoid the repression." Montana Ray, a Spanish and Portuguese translator who teaches at NYU, says Lee refused to conform at a time when the regime demanded it.

MONTANA RAY: She was really central to that movement and was hounded by the apparatus of the state police.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Lee left the band in 1972 for a solo career. She said she was, quote, "in search of Brazil, Brazil, Brazil."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAILA CONMIGO")

RITA LEE: (Singing in non-English language).

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: As a pop star, she broke boundaries in the way she explored sex, politics and religion. In 2021, when diagnosed with lung cancer, she joked about naming her tumor after then-President Jair Bolsonaro. Montana Ray says Lee's outspokenness set her apart.

RAY: That was not kind of the template of womanhood pop stars when she came into the world. And that's sort of what she's leaving us with, which is amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LANCA PERFUME")

LEE: (Singing in non-English language).

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Her death comes less than a year after the passing of Gal Costa, another feminist pillar of Tropicalia. Montana Ray says they continue to inspire generations of artists in Brazil during another time of political turmoil.

RAY: It feels like a precarious time, and they're very - I think their legacy is needed.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Tributes poured in for Lee this week. Brazil's cultural minister, musician Marguerite Meneses, called her a revolutionary woman.

Isabella Gomez Sarmiento, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LANCA PERFUME")

LEE: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a production assistant with Weekend Edition.

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